How do I navigate the murky waters of family-of-origin stories?

Guest post by Kristin L.
Custom family portrait by Etsy seller PrintableWallStory
Custom family portrait by Etsy seller PrintableWallStory
I loveloveloooove my big wonderful blended family, but I get weary of the conclusions people jump to looking at us. I am a Filipina American cis woman that was predominantly raised by my English stepfather (the only father I’ve known). I have two half-siblings. After my mom died, my dad remarried another Filipina woman with two daughters. SO, I technically have a stepfather, stepmother, two half-siblings, and two step-siblings. Also, because we’re both Filipina, I look more like my stepmother.

That’s a whole lot to explain, but sometimes people jump to conclusions that downright offend me — sometimes they feel like micro aggressions. And sometimes it feels too harsh to correct people referring to my stepmom as my mom, but I also want to honor my mom’s memory. (Whew, that’s a lot!)

Anyone else out there with wild and wonderful families that have found a way to navigate the murky waters of introductions/family-of-origin stories? -Kristin L.

How do YOU introduce your complicated family?

Comments on How do I navigate the murky waters of family-of-origin stories?

  1. I’m sorry that people are offensive! It’s tough to deal with people confusing your stepmom with your mom (awkward, but a friendly “She’s actually my stepmom, but she’s great” or something will probably suffice- doesn’t seem harsh to me!).

    With the siblings and your stepdad, though, do you introduce them as half- and step-relatives? I come from a relatively complicated family, as does my boyfriend, and we both just leave out the half- and step- parts when talking about families in general conversation. The details of how exactly everyone is related only comes out during deeper conversations with people we’re close to, since it’s pretty personal to talk about.

    • I have many almost-siblings, some steps, some steps-once-removed. I consider them all my siblings in a way. We all just refer to each other as “siblings” (we none of us have blood siblings of our own so it’s more comfortable to us this way) until someone inquires further. Only my parents do I introduce as steps.

    • “With the siblings and your stepdad, though, do you introduce them as half- and step-relatives?”

      Does anyone actually say ‘this is my half (sibling)’? Just seems so clunky.

      I *just* realized that my dad’s older siblings are ‘half’ like 5 years ago, and I”m in my mid thirties. I knew they didn’t have the same father, but it never occurred to me to think of them as ‘halves’….same with my partner’s younger siblings.

  2. I have a big blended family and yes, it always takes some explaining. For that reason I am very careful myself over assuming relationships but it’s not an experience everyone has had.

    I am the eldest of four children and my parents split when I was 11. My mum remarried and had another child, technically my stepsister but I call her my sister just the same as my “full” sister who I share both parents with. I don’t care if it confuses people. My dad remarried twice so there have been two women who have been my stepmother and the first one had a daughter so at one time I had a step sister as well as a “half” sister and a “full” sister.

    Both my parents are/were white with dark hair. My stepfather is white with dark hair and my stepmother is white with fiery red hair. As a white woman with chestnut hair with red glints I look like I could plausibly be the offspring of any combination of those four adults frankly. My other siblings (including my “half” sister) all have totally different hair/eye colouring that is like each other but not like me and the four parents. Over the years it has caused no end of confusion.

    Our family is a complex story that no one could get right on first sight with no information given. What I try and hold onto is that if they don’t guess it right in the first instance (especially if I am leaving them to guess) then, for me, that doesn’t make them bad, no matter how utterly wrong it feels when someone gets it wrong.

    But we are all currently making the adjustment you have had to, last year my family lost one of the four parents, my beautiful dad. I now have a (dearly beloved) stepmother and no dad that is the (explanational) link between us, it’s so so so weird (HUGE understatement). In the hospital it often happened that staff would refer to our stepmother as our mother. My siblings and I got together and decided (and then told our stepmother) that we had bigger things to worry about and we were going let that fly and not waste energy correcting it, it was a huge relief. The correcting is sometimes worse than the initial issue.

    I haven’t yet had the experience of meeting new people with my stepfather and people assuming that he is my dad and therefore having explaining to explain that he isn’t and my dad is dead, I am not looking forward to it. I am at the stage in my grief where I want to talk about my dad all the time, I want to insert him into every conversation like it will make up for his just not being here. I can see how a reasonable assumption that gets my parentage wrong (that I have dealt with all my life and come to terms with) could tap right into that and totally trigger me. What I’m planning to do, I guess, is be aware that it’s a trigger and so therefore what follows from it is often an understandable reaction but usually an over-reaction (ie not wrong just not wholly proportionate).

    I totally sympathise with your situation and I get the emotion of wanting to honour your mum’s memory but honestly, as long as she’s in your heart then you are doing that. What some random other person says and what you choose do in that moment for the sake of the people around you can’t touch that.

    • I commented above, but I agree with this. I might introduce parents in a situation as “Step-mom” etc but I don’t always go out of my way to correct people if they assume something else unless they ask: “Oh, is this your mother?” or “So tell me how this works?”. My father was also in the hospital a great deal before he died, and I never once corrected anyone about my step-mother’s relationship to me. I figured they would get it with my calling her by her first name, and her identifying me as my father’s daughter, etc. And after my father died, it has never come up as an issue where someone assumes a relationship that isn’t there, especially after introductions or basic interactions. I don’t know if that helps OP or not.

    • Thank you for sharing, and I hope you and your family are finding the time/resources to grieve and heal.

      It’s actually my stepmom that corrects people sometimes, but of course then people want to know the whole story, and if it’s with other Filipino folks, she’ll indulge and talk about everything. In my experience this part of my culture has always embraced over-sharing in this way, and I don’t mind this at all really (gotten used to it).

      I actually asked this question because I am graduating soon, and I am throwing a big party and hope that a lot of families and friends I have met/worked with (who don’t know my family story) will attend, and I’m anxious about my stepmom doing the overshare with someone who then gives me the “oh, I’m so sorry” look for the rest of the night/my life/whenever someone talks about mom near me. I think I will need to accept the sympathy, and continue to feel blessed that I have so many people that support/care for me in that way! – OP

  3. My advice is the same I would give to anyone wondering how much info to share about any sensitive topic.

    You’re talking to X, and X says something like, “That’s a great picture of you and your mom!”
    Are you likely to see X again, or is X someone you’ll only see once or twice? Are you willing to answer additional questions? Does X’s opinion matter to you at all? Are you in a hurry?
    If you’re not likely to see X again or you don’t care about X’s opinion, say, “Thank you, I like that picture too” and move on. You’re not dishonoring your mom by removing yourself from a conversation you don’t want to be in.
    If you are likely to see X again and you’re in a hurry or don’t want to answer questions, say, “She’s a great stepmother. I love that picture” and move on.
    If you think X could be someone you actually want to develop a relationship with and you have the time, say something like, “She’s actually my stepmother. My mother died a few years ago, and I’m blessed to have a woman like Stepmom in my life.” Leave it open for discussion if you want.

    If X is rude to you, redirect the conversation with positivity. It’s your family and you love them. X’s rude opinion is irrelevant to your happiness, and don’t let them get you down.

  4. These are tough waters to navigate… I’ve been dealing with it for 15+ years and it still isn’t ‘easy.’ My mom died (tragically) when I was 12. My dad remarried a few years later. I have 4 bio siblings, 1 step mom and 2 step-siblings. I usually refer to them as ‘my parents’ (because they are at this point) and refer to all of my bio and step siblings as ‘my sister/brother’ in casual conversation. People can make assumptions at that point, I’m fine with it. I sometimes don’t like to turn the conversation into a pity party or make it all about my ‘interesting’ family, or talk about my mother’s death, so I just say parents and siblings, etc., and move on. If it’s with someone I know well or I’m pressed about the topic, I will give a short explanation (“oh, she’s actually my step-sister, my dad remarried when I was a teenager”). But, there has been a history or people getting offended and they don’t like the ‘step’ term, so I try to avoid it when they are actually around. There are also different ethnicities involved, so it’s pretty obvious that we are not related when you meet us all together or see pictures. I have had people tell me that my step mom looks like me, sometimes I let is go, other times I explain more. Depends how I feel. We also just let the 2nd generation lose the ‘step’ term. She is ‘grandma’, step-siblings are ‘aunts/uncles’, everyone’s kids are just ‘nieces/nephews’ to us or ‘cousins’ to each other. It’s just easier and makes us feel like ‘family.’ We don’t want to be constantly reminded or the ‘step’ relationship and rocky past histories.

  5. I have a complicated family that has only become more complicated as I married into an equally-complicated one. Let’s just say divorce and getting remarried is a very common trait amongst many people in my immediate family.

    I don’t consider it a microaggression at all when some rando assumes my mother in-law is my mother, or my step-dad is my father. They are ALL my parents–and in the most general sense of terms, mothers and fathers to me. They are ALL my siblings, including my husband’s step-siblings. They are ALL my nieces and nephews, even the children of my step-siblings-in-law. They are ALL Family, even the ex-wife of my step-brother-in-law who is the mother of my niece, even the parents of my husband’s step-dad.

    Blood relations don’t necessarily define family to me, so I could care less what some random stranger thinks. As people get to know me, they’ll get to know the specific circumstances that brought each of my family members into my life–but I don’t see how using generalized terms like “Father” “Mother” “Sibling” “Grandparent” to describe a step or half or in-law is a micro aggression or even inaccurate.

    • From what I can tell it sounds like you both agree that family is family. I think where she is feeling the microaggression comes from the added layers of complexity wrt ethnicity. I can only imagine how grief might complicate things even more, and make her feel compelled to clarify specific labels to strangers, honoring all iterations of her family.

    • I agree that what constitutes “families” today is super diverse, and don’t necessitate blood relations.

      Truthfully, either I or Offbeat (can’t remember now) pared this section down – I think originally I identified a (not uncommon) situation in which people have said, “But that’s not your REAL dad, right?” or something similar. So, in that sense, when someone insinuates the inauthenticity of my relationship to my family because we don’t look physically similar, it is a microaggression – nay, straight up racist. Although I wish I could chalk it up to misled niceties, ts hard to brush these experiences off. – OP

  6. My family is full of blue eyed blondes and I have an adopted sister who people are never 100% sure what her ethnicity is. Black, Mexican, Native American. It was hard for her growing up in a white family and people would always ask in amazement how she could be our sister. As kids, we used to make stuff up and mess with people. Complete lies. It was fun and helpful for us to deal with all the nosey questions. Theses days if people ask, I answer “you should see my folks.” It lets me answer in a noncommittal way.
    You’re families makeup is really no one’s business but your own. Though I am super nosey if I know someone is adopted. I always preface with, “you don’t have to answer and I know I’m being nosey, but my sister is adopted so I know how great it makes a family.” All in one breath of course.
    Best of luck.

  7. I have to explain this a lot. I have 3 brothers: 1 half brother, 1 step brother, and 1 “real” brother. My “real” brother and I look nothing like our actual half brother and take after our step dad and his son instead, so people usually get confused as to how we’re connected.

  8. It took a while, but I love helping people understand my hard-to-explain family now. My husband and I both have children from a previous marriage/relationship. Mine are twin girls that could not be more different from each other. My husband’s son is a mere 17 days younger than the twins and shares several physical features with one of the girls. So when I say I have three kids and someone asks how old, I say they are all nine years old. That leads to the questions about them being triplets, which they are not but the questions are understandable. Explaining how I have three kids born in the span of 17 days takes a while because it defies logic. But after doing the extended explanation for a few years, I realized that people generally find complicated families to be genuinely interesting. It is the differences that make us unique.

    That being said, if I am not up for explaining my family makeup, I find a way to end the conversation. That usually involves saying yes when asked if they are triplets. If I don’t know someone well enough to engage in the whole conversation, they really don’t need to know the details of my family structure.

  9. I have a pretty confusing situation myself…

    I have my bio-parents who divorced when I was a child who together had 5 children, they both remarried so I also have a step-mother with 3 children, a deceased step-father with 2 children, whom I only met once. I call my step-siblings, step-siblings. Step-parents, step-parents, but call them by their name when talking to or referring to them.

    Here is where it gets more confusing. I had a foster mother with 3 daughters, one of which married my bio-mothers brother, so she was a sister/aunt, all of their children were nieces and nephews/cousins. My foster mothers family were aunts/uncles/grandparents and still are. I married my now ex-husband who was my foster mothers nephew, so one set of aunt/uncle became in-laws, then we divorced and they are still aunt/uncle. I don’t have any contact with my ex but I keep in touch with parents/aunts/uncles/etc. I also have a Pseudo-Parents, an amazing couple that are the parents I wish I had all of my life. They are just wonderful. I call them Mom and Dad. I also have siblings spouses and friends and their families that are family too.

    It gets really confusing trying to explain to people not in the know with my life story, heck even my husband gets confused, he always has to ask which Mom I am talking about. All in all we are just a big somewhat dysfunctional and very confusing family

  10. My grandfather remarried and my step-grandma has 7 grandkids who we see quite a lot of and we just describe them as cousins as it’s easier than explaining the connection.

  11. My dad was a widower when he met my mom; their May-September marriage has two kids (me and my sister) and he has two daughters not much older than my mom (yeah.) Sometimes I drop the “half-” when talking about my older sisters, but that can get confusing, since they’re SO much older…! Anyway, my original contribution is that we try to defuse other people’s embarrassment or errors with jokes, e.g. correcting misidentifications of who’s related to whom and how with “Actually, X is my Y! We win a lot of bets with that one…”

  12. For most of my life, my family seemed pretty simple. I’m adopted but I have brown hair as do both of my (adoptive) parents and nobody thought much about the fact that I have brown eyes and they both have blue/grey/green eyes. Met my birth mom when I was 20 and for the most part we negotiated her relationship as more friend than mom. The older I got, the more she blurred that. I generally let her say she was my mom to people who knew her, but I would get the choice with people I knew. She broke that unspoken rule once and it was awkward. She’d helped me get a temp job at one point and I had spoken to my boss about my mom who had been a librarian (the job was with a library association). Then my birth mom told my boss she was my mom. I then had to explain the whole thing which I felt should have been my choice. So I get being worried about someone over sharing with the wrong crowd. If you’re concerned about that, I’d talk to your step-mom and just let her know that not everyone at the party knows all the details and you want it to be a fun party, not a party about your family connections and could she please let you choose who you give all the details to?

    My birth mom has since passed away and I have pretty much no contact with her family (ran into her sister at the mall with her son a couple weeks back and that was unfamiliar). So mostly that has gotten less complicated. But my parents divorced and my dad has since remarried and his wife has 3 kids, two of whom I remember from school as we all grew up in the same town and the oldest and I had a mutual friend so certainly did interact back then. I’ve become pretty close to my step-sis and her hubby. I generally refer to them as step-siblings (I was in my thirties, they were late twenties when the marriage happened, so I don’t want to presume and call them sisters and brothers) but I lay claim to being an aunt to the kids, who were all born after the marriage. I talk about my nieces and nephew and nobody thinks anything of it unless they already knew I was an only child. The oldest two of my step-siblings don’t live locally but we’re family. My dad is “bumpa” just as much as his wife is “nana.” The local step-bro I’m not particularly close to but that’s more a personality/age thing than anything else.

    Then again, I’ve always referred to my mom’s friends as Aunt/Uncle because I saw them all the time. So the factor of blood in relationships and in family has always been fluid. I have a bunch of friends I refer to as sisters. Works for me!

  13. Aw, the complexity of families, particularly when they’re big. My parents got divorced and remarried by the time my younger sister was 2 and I 3. We grew up with my mom and step-father, who we also call dad. My dad and step-mom (who we introduced as step-mom or by her name, as we weren’t that close to her) had one girl, then they got divorced when I was 13. So I have one sister, and one half-sister, but I refer to both as just my siblings.
    My dad remarried when I was 25, and I refer to her by her name or as my dad’s wife. Mostly because I feel weird saying step-mom or mom (despite the fact that everything I get from them is signed mom and dad, which only slightly confuses me every time).
    I think really it just comes down to what you feel they are to you, related by blood or not. Like my mom and step-dad are currently getting divorced, but I still refer to my step-dad as dad as he’ll still be part of my life and is still me dad. To make it not so confusing sometimes I refer to my dads by their names, or as my phone has them “Daddy Leo” and “Daddy Jim”.
    So it sum it up, I have 2 dads, 1 mom, and 2 younger sisters; because that’s what I consider my family. And all of my step-dad’s side of the family I consider just part of my extended family and have never considered them step-aunt/uncle/etc. My bio-dad’s farther (my grandpa) found out he had another child from a pervious relationship before he married my grandma. We found out about it when I was around 10, and her and her family have been considered part of our family ever since then. (I have so many cousins!)

  14. After my mom passed away my dad remarried, he and my stepmom have two children who are the same age as my own. My littlest sister is in the same class as my son, three years on their classmates (and sometimes teachers) still struggle with the idea that they’re aunt and nephew. My kids couldn’t pronounce my youngest brother’s name for the first few months of his life so dubbed him ‘Baby Uncle.’

    In the grand scheme we’re not the strangest family structure out there but this is still all very modern for our rural Irish community. And we still face a lot of assumptions about our relationships with each other, people often assumed that my sister was my daughter and would ask if they (my sister and son) were twins if I was out with them in public. Sometimes I’d just smile and say yes, or say they were cousins because it was easier than explaining the whole thing! Can you imagine just making polite small talk with someone and getting, ‘Well actually no, my mom died when I was 17 and blah blah blah!’ ?!?!

    I tend to just ignore the assumptions, some days I correct people, other times I don’t. Depends on my mood. As far as I’m concerned people are only being polite. However, no one is mistaken for being my deceased mother, my stepmom is only 12 years older than me so no one as ever made that assumption. I can see why that would hurt a little and start to feel invasive, especially if it was recurring thing. But the way I see it is I don’t need to explain my family to anyone. We’re a big bunch of beautiful weirdos who found each other even through the saddest of times. If I feel like it, I will. If not then smile and nod.

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